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The Katrina Cottage I, designed by Marianne Cusato, provides an alternative to FEMA trailers and manufactured homes for residents of the Gulf Coast provided by the U.S. government after Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005. At 308 sq.ft., the cottage is small but fits four to a bedroom and features a comfortable shared living and dining room.

 

Opinions

Living Compactly

The Katrina Cottages teach us the value of scaling down and carefully allocating resources.

By Maricé Chael

As newlyweds, my husband and I settled on a block of tiny 1920s-vintage English-style cottages. Ours fronts a quiet canal lined with pine trees and coconut palms set within the metropolis of greater Miami, FL. Having foraged through a list of 300 or so houses, we finally found a small house we could not only afford on our modest salaries, but also one with the character that comes from good building proportions and the patina of use. Along the way, as our family expanded to include a son, daughter and dachshund, the cottage has disciplined us to limit our possessions to mostly things that seem essential (or at least delightfully quirky enough to justify the space they take up). "Petite-fixer-upper-in-historic-neighborhood" was the deal we, and some peers, had made.

Since decades beforehand, however, the common trend in the U.S. building industry has been to gradually increase the square footage of new residences each year. Pulte Homes reports that its average new home is growing by 150 to 200 sq.ft. every few years. According to the Journal of Industrial Ecology and the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB), single-family houses in the 1950s were built with about 290 sq.ft. of living area per family member, whereas, on average, new houses in 2006 provided 944 sq.ft. per family member – an increase of more than 200 percent.

Having lived in old houses in traditional urban neighborhoods all my life, I'm of the opinion that it is possible, and even desirable, to live compactly. My childhood home in Havana, Cuba, with its soaring ceilings and rose windows between rooms, had spacious communal areas while the bedrooms were relatively small. In my family's Turn of the Century Manhattan apartment, the dining area and kitchen were combined. Space is at such a premium in such quarters that one has to carefully select the few special objects that fit. Of course, it also helps that once you step outside the front door, the city beckons with life. By contrast, the typical new 3,000-sq.ft. suburban house seems to provide rooms and rooms of limitless sheetrock and sprayed-on popcorn ceilings matched to an equally banal world outside – the Land of Endless Garage Doors.

Certainly there must be more to our suburban-housing menu than big houses on large lots. The more-is-more mentality, it turns out, is amazingly costly; each square foot is expensive to build, and too many of the oversized houses are on super-sized lots spread out across the land, exacerbating environmental problems and fueling the upward spiral of transportation costs. Our metropolitan areas are simultaneously struggling with shortages of affordable housing and the problem of runaway sprawl, so it is time to rediscover techniques for designing small but livable homes in land-efficient, sustainable neighborhoods.

The Not So Big House author Sarah Susanka has been bringing attention to the big possibilities of thinking small for years, but the idea received a boost recently in the Gulf Coast states needing emergency housing after Hurricane Katrina in August 2005. In October of the same year, my colleagues and I participated in the Mississippi Renewal Forum, a 200-person effort under the leadership of Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour and architect/urbanist Andrés Duany to rebuild and renew the municipalities of the Mississippi Gulf Coast. One of the many good ideas to come from the forum was the Katrina Cottage, which was proposed as a dignified alternative to the dismal FEMA trailer. The Katrina Cottages, which vary in size from 170 to 1,200 sq.ft., were designed as prefabricated homes that integrate nicely with the local venacular. But they're not just small designs. They are also spectacularly cool and practical. They are popular, too; the first one, designed by New York City-based architect Marianne Cusato, won the 2006 People's Design Award in the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum's annual competition.

Touring Cusato's prototype structure at the February 2006 NAHB Expo, I found it refreshingly spacious and comfortable despite its mere 308 sq.ft. Its dimensions are tall and its windows are generous. The living area and kitchen are compact, yet seem roomy due to the open-plan layout and the clever use of every cubic inch of space. Once on location, the traditional design, with its locally appropriate front porch, will respect all of its neighbors. It will feel as natural as a new neighbor among more standard-sized houses or as an accessory building to a main house.

In Ocean Springs, one of the oldest towns along the Mississippi coast, Mayor Connie Moran quickly identified a neighborhood that could benefit from thoughtful in-fill with Katrina Cottage designs. There, a settlement featuring these small but dignified houses is currently under construction, among them Cusato's vernacular Katrina Cottage. A reinvigorated neighborhood is now rising with this architecture, but the think-small/think-livable approach is visible in the urbanism, too; overly long blocks are being cut down to walkable size and oversized lots are being reshaped to allow elegant, but efficient, use of the land. This is a case study that is transferable to many situations around the country. Katrina may have brought about a demonstration of what the U.S. housing industry needs.

These reflections are offered as we are building a careful addition to our family's cottage – which was recently designated historic – that matches the traditional architecture of the original. At 2,000 sq.ft. for our family of four, the final house will still be about 47 percent per person below the new national average, yet our kids will each have a bedroom, we'll have some more space for books and my husband and I will share a closet a bit larger than before. The addition/remodeling will also allow for putting in some solar equipment, reclaiming our rainwater for irrigating the garden and making the original parts of the cottage healthier and more energy-efficient. But yes, with this house we'll still be keeping a lid on our stuff. Sometimes less is just about right.  

 


Maricé Chael, AIA, is a principal with Chael, Cooper & Associates of Coral Gables, FL. The firm received a Palladio Award in 2006 for the McKean Gateway and Marshall and Vera Lea Rinker Building at Rollins College in Winter Park, FL.

 

 
 

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